Every now and then, I’ll write a post on my college team, the North Carolina State Wolfpack. There are some similarities between the Pack and the Mets, chief among them is that both team have won it all twice and how both programs take a back seat in national stature to other programs in the state. Much like Mets fans relish beating the Yankees, State fans like nothing better than beating UNC. Unfortunately, the latter doesn’t happen all too often, as the Tar Heels usually have an edge in both talent and coaching. And, as a conspiratorial State fan, they always have an edge when it comes to the calls in a game. If Jamie Luckie is the ref, you can guarantee that some pivotal calls will go against you. And he’s not the only one.
UNC’s coach is Roy Williams, who is unquestionably an outstanding basketball coach. His teams run an offense that is very fun to watch. They typically rebound the ball very well and get down the court on a normal possession faster than most teams do when trailing by one with five seconds remaining. Because of their coach, history and their current record, they usually are in the running for the 5-star prospects. It’s a tough cycle to break. But Williams himself may be showing signs of … imploding. Last year was a down year for the program. Of all of the awful things that have happened in our Covid world, one of the toughest sports things for me to take was having the NCAA Tournament canceled – one that would have included State and have had UNC on the sidelines. During the year, Williams said this about the squad made up entirely of guys he had recruited:
the least gifted team I’ve ever coached in the time that I’ve been back here.
It gained a little bit of national attention but really there were no repercussions. If a coach at just about any other ACC school had said that, he would have been roasted by the national media. But there was nothing of the kind here. And it didn’t affect recruiting, as the Heels had the nation’s second-ranked recruiting class, including three 5-star recruits. Last night was the State-Carolina game and the good guys won, 79-76. It’s hard to think that this year’s UNC team won’t be much, if any, better than last year’s disappointing squad, despite the fact they came into the game as the #17 team in the country.
State was playing without its top offensive weapon and one of two reliable big men on its roster, DJ Funderburk. On top of that, it had one of its top players returning for the first time in over three weeks due to a Covid-related issue. Cam Hayes played well in his return but played reduced minutes as he wasn’t in game shape. In normal circumstances, this would have resulted in a UNC win by at least 20 points. For once, it’s nice to say that these are not normal times. Sure, UNC enjoyed its typical rebounding edge. And it received a few calls along the way, too. But nothing else about this game seemed normal at all. As a Knicks fan, State had a play in this game that brought back memories, as freshman guard Shak Moore went baseline and threw down a lefty dunk over Player of the Year candidate Garrison Brooks. It was like watching John Starks all over again.
The final margin was three points but it was only that way due to State missing six of its final eight free throws and Carolina enjoying hot shooting down the stretch. State led by as many as 17 points and had a double-digit lead with just over four minutes remaining in the game.
Usually, a State win over Carolina brings elation but somehow not this time. Yes, it would have been crushing to have lost this one but the feeling of watching this version of UNC brings to mind the old Peggy Lee song – Is That All There Is? What should have been a unique and wonderful experience instead was a disappointment. Maybe this was just a bad night and we’ll soon see again a typical UNC squad.
But what really matters is that this State team, picked in the preseason to finish eighth in the conference, has the chance to have its best season in years. This is coach Kevin Keatts’ fourth year in Raleigh and he has his deepest team yet. The team has two good big men in Funderburk and Manny Bates and two other 6-10′ guys to use in case of foul trouble. And they have waves of guards and wings who can score, handle the ball and apply defensive pressure. The preseason ranking made sense, because the Pack lost their top two scorers from a year ago. But the incoming freshman class includes two guards ready to play, and play well, right now. There’s also a redshirt freshman who’s 6’7 and can handle the ball in transition.
In any sport, there are teams that are good but aren’t necessarily fun to watch. This State basketball team will be a fun one when everyone is healthy. Bates is perhaps the best shot blocker in the nation and he put on a bunch of muscle in the offseason, making it tougher for people to go thru him or push him around down low. A shoulder injury robbed him of his senior year of high school and caused him to redshirt his first year at State. Last year he came back and led the league in blocked shots but was pretty much a zero offensively. The shoulder looks completely healed and last night he scored 14 points. Funderburk can score inside and out and is a terrific offensive rebounder.
Devon Daniels likes to go 1-on-4 sometimes but can take it to the hole in the halfcourt better than just about anyone around and is a dogged defender. Braxton Beverly consistently makes good decisions with the ball and you cannot leave him open for a three. Jerricole Hellems does the dirty work and has games where he does it all on offense, too. Nebraska transfer Thomas Allen has yet to have a big game but has a reputation as a scorer. Hayes and Moore bring undeniable energy. Hayes should move into the starting lineup as the point guard before the year is out. Moore is considered the team’s best one-on-one defender, which is a pretty good thing to be on a team with Daniels.
Don’t be surprised if this Mets blog features a State game chatter before the season is out. There are two games upcoming against Virginia, school of former writer Brendan Vachris. You’ll might see a chatter for one of those. Come join me and talk trash about Virginia and its Neanderthal offense.